Unethical Work Conditions in the U.S.? Foreign Students Say Yes

If you've ever travelled to a foreign country, especially on your own, you probably know how frightening the experience can be. What if, once you were there, the circumstances that convinced you to travel vanished, and you were forced to work a grueling job for unjust pay and phantom benefits? That's what happened to a group of international students visiting the U.S. last summer. Read on for an incredible first-hand account of their story, which culminated in a battle for human rights.

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by Eric Garneau

Harika

Harika Duygu Özer, along with other J1 work visa students, addresses an assembly at the Service Employees International Union in Washington, D.C.

Every year, legions of students from around the world come to the U.S. on work visas to learn our language and get a taste of our culture. For one such group last summer, the resulting experience turned out to be worse than any of them could have imagined. Roughly 400 students from China, the Ukraine, Romania and more found themselves in a Hershey's chocolate factory in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, where they were subjected to unduly harsh, even abusive work conditions from their supposed benefactors, including working full-time jobs for less than $200 per week and being charged almost $2,000 monthly to rent a shared apartment. One such student, Harika Duygu Özer from Turkey's Marmara University School of Medicine, spoke with Study.com about her experiences, which led to her participating in an August strike when conditions became too untenable. What did Ms. Özer take away from her time in America?

Study.com: What made you want to come to the U.S.?

Harika Duygu Özer: I didn't know much about the summer exchange program before my friends told me about it, and I thought it would be good to be in the U.S. for three months, improving my English, meeting new people (students from all around the world and local people), experiencing a new world, working and earning my own money. So I decided to go with my other three friends from Turkey.

E-P: What were conditions like in the Hershey's factory? How about in your apartments?

HDO: I was working from 11 PM to 7 AM, packing candies nonstop, lifting boxes that weighed 25-40 lbs, wrapping sometimes without any help. You would become dizzy from wrapping alone. Our line leaders and supervisors didn't let us talk or even work at normal speed. We had to work so fast because if they thought you weren't working fast enough they could fire you, send you back your home country, so it wasn't a risk worth taking after spending that much money ($3,000) to come to the U.S.

They always threatened us, always put pressure on us, always tried to make us frightened and make us work as captive workers. They always wanted to make lots of profit because if the line leaders would make us work so fast then we could complete more pallets than the supervisors wanted and the line leaders would earn some bonus money. But people who made those pallets would earn nothing but swollen fingers and aching backs and legs. They didn't care how we felt about working that fast, if we felt pain while working, etc. I don't really know how anyone can think that's a suitable job for a university student who comes there for improving English.

In the apartments, each of us paid $395 and I shared the apartment with five other friends, so in total we paid close to $2,000 monthly. But our neighbors - local people - were paying $700 for their entire apartment. We didn't know why we had to pay more. There was some furniture, a non-working TV. But after what we saw in the factory, housing was okay, except its rent.

E-P: What kind of response did you get from program administrators when you brought your unsatisfactory conditions to their attention?

HDO: Me and my friends went to the CETUSA (program sponsor) office in Harrisburg to ask if we could find another job because that one really caused some serious health problems. I was afraid of my swollen fingers; I want to be a surgeon one day. The man there looked at me, laughed and said 'I did worse jobs and didn't cry like you do; you came here to work and you will. By the way, you cannot be a surgeon or a doctor in America.' Well yes, we did come here to work, but we paid at least $3,000 to travel and improve our language, not to suffer from backache or swollen fingers. And also I knew if I could take the test I could be a doctor in America too, but it still made me feel bad hearing that and it was so rude for him to say such a thing. As you can guess we couldn't change the job and had to stay there.

When we told them about the rent issue - that we paid three times what our neighbors did - they said we paid so much because we weren't citizens. It wasn't a very satisfactory statement. They never listened or tried to solve our problems. Because of that, we did the strike. Before the strike our supervisors heard some rumors about it and held captive audience meetings saying 'if you walk out, you will be terminated' and of course some other threats too.

E-P: Did you partake in the protest? If so, how long before you returned to your job, or did you at all?

HDO: We did strike on August 17 and didn't go to the job for three days. After three days we divided students in two groups: inside people and outside people. Inside people went back to the plant as human rights observers. Me and my other 10-15 friends stayed outside and didn't return to the job. We traveled around Pennsylvania and also went to Washington, New York, etc., meeting local people, union people, presidents and members of the AFL-CIO and SEIU. We had meetings with unions, ate dinners with local people and witnessed the real America. We travelled to cities that are abandoned and saw the unemployed people, which really hurt us deeply. We talked to radios and newspapers (The New York Times), trying to tell our story and gather support.

E-P: When government officials intervened, some program administrators promised you incentives like paid vacation and trips to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and the Hershey headquarters. Did they deliver on those promises? If so, how did you enjoy your time off? Do you feel these administrators made a fair trade?

HDO: I didn't go on any of these trips but I know that they did some trips to those places, took photos and hanged them on the walls to show that everybody was having fun. Since I didn't go on those trips I shouldn't comment about them, but I think it was hypocritical not listening to our concerns and problems before the strike and arranging trips after hearing strike rumors. They were giving us $500 to stop us from talking about what was going on in the plant. For me it was not a fair trade at all. We spent lots of money, had to have high grades at school and tried hard to get our visas and all we had there were health problems, psychological pressures from CETUSA and the supervisors and of course a summer that was wasted until the strike and seeing the real America, not the fantasy one.

E-P: Did you get to partake in any learning or cultural exchanges while you were in America? If so, what did you learn?

HDO: Before the strike I said I would never come to this country again and couldn't wait to go back home. If we had never done the strike I would go back to Turkey with this really bad idea about America, but after the strike I met some really amazing people. People cooked for us, invited us to their homes, opened their lives and showed that yes, there are really bad things in America, but they're trying to fix them and not ignore the truth or settle with what they have now. They taught me that if I see an injustice I need to fight back for me or for others. I shouldn't stay quiet and close my eyes to wrongdoing.

I saw really interesting things too. For example, I am not a Christian but we went to a church to talk about the strike and gather support and for the first time in my life I saw a reverend giving a speech and people singing in the church. They blessed my other friends and asked if they could do it to me and I said 'of course,' because even though I'm not Christian I felt like one of them because they supported us so much and considered us as sisters and brothers. I saw Amish people and their lifestyle was so pure and basic; it was one of my greatest memories. I saw the ocean for the first time and swimming in the ocean was great. I ate lots of traditional meals that were amazing. But the main thing I took away was the hospitality of union people, local people and the National Guestworker Alliance. Their friendship, honesty and generosity made America great after the strike. So now my idea about America is completely different thanks to the real Americans who live there.

E-P: One administrator remarked that he believes 'eventually the kids will feel sorry for what they did.' Do you feel sorry for your actions? How do you feel about your experience?

HDO: I am proud of what we have done. I am proud of even taking part. Why would I feel sorry for standing up for my rights? After the strike I had the greatest time of my life because I saw the real America. I couldn't have seen it and met those great people if I had sat down and accepted the unfairness. Some students who didn't support the strike came to me and said 'we are really proud of you and sorry for not participating, but what you've done inspired us a lot.'

CETUSA tried to make us out as some spoiled kids trying to find some adventure, but the truth is we are not kids. Kids wouldn't be as brave as my friends who sat down in the plant in front of the police who came and told them that there were two vans of police waiting to arrest them if they didn't leave. I think if we were kids, we wouldn't have stayed strong together when we saw the helicopters, dogs and police with guns in front of us. Especially in a foreign country, 250 students don't go on strike for fun.

E-P: Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers about your time in the U.S. or your experience with the State Department Summer Work Travel program?

HDO: It was the worst and the best summer of my life. I'm not going to forget people who helped us a lot, people who let us stay in their houses, people who became my good friends. Now I have Romanian, Ukrainian, Chinese, Mongolian, Kazak, Polish and American friends who I am still in touch with. Thanks to them I have amazing memories to tell my grandchildren. I know there are lots of people who don't believe what I say, what we fought for; I saw their comments on the Internet. But this was what happened. In America I learned that we cannot change certain things, but having people who don't support or believe you is not that important if you know that you did the right thing and if you believe yourself. Even though I had really hard times there, it was the best decision to come to the U.S. and to stand up for our rights. I recommend you do the same thing if you witness any injustice.

If you're a foreign student looking to get a visa for U.S. travel, beware of sham universities.

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